Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Your Body During a Breakup: The Science of a Broken Heart

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Breakups are emotional roller coasters. Actually that’s not true. If a breakup was anything like a roller coaster the end would be visible from the start, you could say ‘no thanks’ to the ride and at the end of it, for a hefty sum the memory could be savoured forever with a flimsy cardboard-framed photo.

Breakups are are more like being under a roller coaster. 

Before we knew the science we knew the feeling, and used words associated with physical pain – hurt, pain, ache – are used describe the pain of a relationship breakup. Now we know why. The emotional pain of a breakup and physical pain have something in common – they both activate the same part of the brain

Brain scans of people recently out of a relationship have revealed that social pain (the emotional pain from a breakup or rejection) and physical pain share the same neural pathways.

In one study, 40 people who had recently been through an unwanted breakup had their brains scanned while they looked at pictures of their exes and thought about the breakup. As they stared at the photos, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up.

As explained by researcher Ethan Kross, ‘We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion.’

He continues, ‘These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.’

In further support of the overlap between physical and social pain, Tylenol (an over the counter medication for physical pain) has been shown to reduce emotional hurt.

Research has found that people who took Tylenol (an over-the-counter medication for physical pain) for three weeks reported less hurt feelings and social pain on a daily basis than those who took a placebo.

The effect was also evident in brain scans. When feelings of rejection were induced, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up in participants who didn’t take Tylenol. Those who took Tylenol showed significantly less activity in that part of the brain.

Nobody is suggesting that the broken hearted turn to pain medication to reduce their lean towards Kleenex, Baskin-Robbins and repeated viewings of Love Actually. Long term use will cane the liver. Somebody else is waiting to fall in love with you, but you and your liver have to stay friends forever.

The Physical Side of a Broken Heart

The human brain loves love. Being in love takes the lid off the happy hormones, dopamine and oxytocin, and the brain bathes in the bliss. But when the one you love leaves, the supply of feel good hormones takes a dive and the brain releases stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.

In small doses, stress hormones are heroic, ensuring we respond quickly and effectively to threat. However in times of long-term distress such as a broken heart, the stress hormones accumulate and cause trouble. Here’s what’s behind the physical symptoms of a breakup:

  • Too much cortisol in the brain sends blood to the major muscle groups. They tense up ready to respond to the threat (fight or flight). However, without real need for a physical response the muscles have no opportunity to expend the energy.

    Muscles swell, giving rise to headaches, a stiff neck and that awful feeling of your chest being squeezed.

  • To ensure the muscles have an adequate blood supply, cortisol diverts blood away from the digestive system.

    This can cause tummy trouble such as cramps, diarrhea or appetite loss. 

  • When stress hormones run rampant, the immune system can struggle, increasing vulnerability to bugs and illnesses.

    Hence the common ‘break-up cold’.

  • There is a steady release of cortisol.

    This might cause sleep problems and interfere with the capacity to make sound judgements 

  • Breakups activate the area of your brain that processes craving and addiction.

    Losing a relationship can throw you into a type of withdrawal, which is why it’s hard to function – you ache for your ex, sometimes literally, and can’t get him/her out of your head. Like any addiction, this will pass.

In a relationship, your mind, your body and the core of you adjust to being intimately connected someone. When that someone leaves, the brain has to readjust. The pain can be relentless but eventually the body chemistry will change back to normal and the hurt will diminish.

Getting through a breakup is as much a physical process as an emotional one. Remember that, and know that it will get easier. Keep going. You’ll get there.

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325 Comments

Cindy

I thought it was just me, my chest pain is very similar to when I watched my precious mom pass away , its heartbreaking literally 💖

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ashley

Your pain from a romantic relationship break up felt similar to the loss of a parent? I often feel I’m over reacting, but this is interesting if true

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Samantha p

to be honest this article is saving my life I was wondering why I felt so suicidal why I literally could not handle the physical pain in my chest I could not understand in.
my brain my thinking was over it for my body couldn’t handle it the withdrawals of not being physically intimate anymore I just could not understand that I can say one thing a lot of prayer and fasting can help anyone get into prayer and fasting reading positive reading the Bible fasting and praying to Jesus positive thoughts this has been the worst pain in my life this was like if you had a good relationship with your mom or dad it was like losing a parent at the age of 7 or 8 I didn’t know people attached so strongly profoundly we only work together for 7 months it was so

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angel

He is on my mind every min Im awake This physical pain in my chest is unbearable, every breath I take it hurts without him in my life,the uncontrollable stressful crying,I cant function ,Im not thinking, eating or drinking properly due to stress,I am emotionally and physically exhausted , I just want to go to sleep and never wake up,its been 5 weeks now, I think I need a therapist so I dont take him back and NEVER have to feel this way again!

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SadOldGal

I know how u feel. Its been about 47 days since my ex brokeup with me and i still feel heartbroken and depressed and i still often think about things that transpired and led to our end. But it gets easier. Its not as painful as it used to. And i agree that time does heal all our hurts. Take it a day at a time. I find comfort in those who are experiencing the same way as I do. And it always helps to just keep looking forward. Just keep living life. There is hope for us. And we can we happy if we choose to be.

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Brandon

I was with my ex for 6 years, the last 2 we were engaged. We were supposed to be married two weekends ago but she left me. Not only just leave me but go with another f***ing guy ! I have NEVER felt this excruciating pain before in my life. I didn’t eat for 5 days. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I cried half the water out of my body. I’ve been taking sleep medicine just to get some sleep. I am extremely depressed and cannot get over this pain. My worst night mare that I could have ever imagined is my life. I am literally living in HELL on earth right now. It’s weird to see you girls feeling pain as the girl I was with doesn’t feel anything. I am realizing now she is a sadist & sociopath. I can’t imagine getting over this, I don’t know what happiness is. She ripped my heart out, constantly stomps on it, and has no remorse for her actions. I have never been more sad or in more pain or more of a cloudy mind than I am now 🙁

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Batphink Will

DO see a counellor ASAP after 3 years I’m only slightly better than you and even considered suicide but I won;t do it now.However waking up on a beautiful morning and wanting to not exist still happens/Some people love too much.
I wish you a speedy recovery,time will make it hurt less,I know I’ve lost a few partners I thought were soulmates.

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Katelyn

I can’t cope with the pain of my break up. Can’t eat or sleep, I feel depressed. Can’t sleep without the sleeping pills. And to make things worse I think I’m getting addicted to them. How can I make myself feel better and sleep better?

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Chico

It’s been a year since I broke up with my ex whom I still work with twice a week. I thought I could be his friend again. I was wrong. He has just engaged with a younger woman and announced his engagement on Facebook that I have so many mutual friends. The impact, rejection and isolation I felt were much larger than I expected. And the pain is back. I think about our past whenever I am alone. It has been unbelievably stressful and on some nights I really wanted to end the pain. Yet, I have a daughter to look after and feel trapped in this painful state of mind. My family and friends cheer me up and say, “Let it go. You are fine.” I really appreciate what they say and I do believe “Time will heal.” But in a meantime, I’ve been dealing with emotional roller coaster every day. A year ago, I could not take this pain and stress and went back to the circle of his friends, pretending I was absolutely fine. In fact, I tried to believe I was ok till he announced his engagement a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly, something was broken again in me. Now, I have to go through the healing journey. Hope I can do it this time.

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Reader-A

Yes, you can heal and be done with this chapter of your life, for good. Why would you waste time on someone that wasn’t for you? There are plenty of men slipping through your fingers because you are too busy stressing over ancient history!
Change your point of view about men and relationships that don’t last… you enjoy the time and are fine moving on to the next Love of your life, do not waste anymore time!
Get yourself out there dating, online date, and go meet guys weekly! and you’ll see that you’ve been wasting your precious time for nothing! Lots of men waiting to Love you!!

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DINORAH

Finding this article that explains the physiology of breaking up with a loved on, has been a life saver. I dated a man who had asked me to marry him, repeatedly and early on in the relationship said he loved and adored me, faked an illness, broke up with me in an email and asked I respect boundaries of limited communication with him. Assuming he was telling the truth, I respected his wishes and did as he requested. Six weeks later, no diagnosis and not being any better off emotionally, decided to do some investigating and concluded he was faking it all along, which further prolonged the symptoms described in this article. Day 3 of the Tylenol remedy and I can say I am feeling a slight improvement.

Come to discover quickly falling in love like he did and then breaking it off abruptly could be a sign of male borderline personality. Which I believe he is clearly displaying.. Thank you to the authors of this article and Tylenol. You have been a lifesaver.

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Sharon

I came across this website by accident and thank god I did! Its only just over 2 weeks since I discovered that my husband of 27 yrs slept with a so called friend of us both.I felt like I was the only one that was suffering all this mental and physical pain but then I read all the other posts and feel that I am not alone. My heart is broken and my world has fallen apart but its that physical ache in the chest that will not go away but am trying to tell myself in time it will. My good friends who are supporting me, (do not have close family) keep telling to not retreat into myself but to keep talking about how I feel, no matter how much they will listen but sometimes you feel as though you are going on about it too much , does anyone else feel like this. Please can someone tell me that in time this pain eases as I really do hope so, just so I can find some peace away from all this pain.

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Batphink Will

It does and will.I hear you Sharon as I’ve been cheated on more than anyone I know it always hurts unbearably then one day you don;t feel as bad,even slight anger is better than the depression but it will get better,you;ll feel like yourself soon enough Best Wishes. 🙂

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Jade

Sorry to hear what you are going through and I certainly will pray for you. I am going through the same thing. Married 20 years, forgave my husband for sleeping with so many woman including a best friend. Here I am again 45 and we are yet again separated.

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Juliet

In a lot of respects, the grieving process comes from when you are not getting any answers from an ex as to why he or she behaved in such a way as to cause the break up.
You over-think to the point of doing your own head in.
Friends will say, “oh, you don’t half pick ’em, don’t you” – it always seems to be the friends that are happy in their own relationships that say this – otherwise, they will join in with the slandering of your ex.
When you break up with someone, very often the reason is to save your own sanity, simply because it is just too toxic or the relationship is not going anywhere.
Alot of relationship first meetings are centred around alcohol. Alcohol creates an actor and not necessarily the true character of the person.
It is not always wise to get into another relationship straight away, as you need to re-learn YOU.
I believe a relationship is akin to an ‘investment’ in a bank account.
You invest your time, emotions, trust, thoughts – YOUR ALL!!!!!
If this relationship was an actual bank account, and over a period of time you notice that you are getting very little, or no ‘interest’ in your ‘investment’, you would remove your money and bank elsewhere wouldn’t you?
I believe that the same applies to your broken heart.
Juliet

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Rachel A

I can’t cope with the pain of my break up. Can’t eat or sleep, I feel depressed. Can’t sleep without the sleeping pills or wine. And to make things worse I think I’m getting addicted to them. How can I make myself feel better and sleep better?

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Donna T

My experience with heart break is a little different. I was married for 30 years. 1 day he just got up said he couldn’t take it anymore and was going to a motel to think. I asked what he was talking about and he left. He never returned. He married her 30 days to the day our divorce was final. He filed. He also did some very ugly things to me to keep me from finding out who she was. What he didn’t understand is that I really didn’t care who SHE was. I actually was relieved in the beginning that he was gone. He was very abusive both mentally and physically so I didn’t try to stop him from leaving. That was 7 years ago this month. He left 2 weeks before Christmas. Took all the money out of the bank and broke our grand kids hearts. This was a 2nd marriage for both of us and the grands were actually my blood but they had no idea he was not blood. Most days I have thoughts of him and what he did to me/us I want to hate him but that is not in me. I don’t want him back either. I was so angry for so long now I am just hurt and bewildered that a man could live with a woman for 30 years and just walk out w/o looking back. I actually thought he would come back but he didn’t. I have tried to date but am totally turned off by all men. Maybe it’s fear. I want a partner to share the rest of my life with but I don’t want to start over does that make sense? I turn 65 new years day all the men my age remind me of my grandfather and that just grosses me right out. I thought about therapy but I believe talking to just anyone is just as good. Doesn’t work well either. All my family is dead and I have ended up with custody of my 7 yr old special needs granddaughter which is a blessing to me but the need to share with an adult still exists. Is there hope for me? At this point I think not. I think I am destined to be alone now until the end.

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Phoenix

I am so glad i happened upon this article. It has been 2 months since my ex called off our engagement. I havent been able to eat or sleep and i have been very physically sick over this. I havent gone more than a few days without crying randomly. I am relieved i am not alone at least. I suppose it was maybe the right thing but miss “us” terribly. I am doing everything i should be doing to help myself..reading books, seeing a counselor, talking with friends and family, keeping busy, going out for dinners, yoga, reiki. I cut off all contact with my ex even social media. I dont feel any better. When i am out i feel detached and sad and lonely and just want to be home in bed or on the couch. If im asleep i dont have to think about anything . If it weren’t for my daughter i probably wouldn’t leave my home except for work. I was hoping time would help but my heart still aches so very much. I dont know what else to do.

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Sofia

I feel slightly better after reading the comments and reading the post. But there is something i did not find… In my case i was the guilty one, I was too stubborn and to attached and dependant on him. I think my insecurity of “him leavaing me ” killed the relation. I have a low selfsteem and a lot of insecurities and trust issues so I was constantly nagging about him not giving me attention (but he was) I was too demanding and I became obssessed somehow,… I wanted ihim with me 24 hrs and he got fed up… but it was not intentional I swear it’s the result of my fears and insecurities…… but this guilt feeling kills me because I CAUSED him to leave….

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Balmy

Don’t beat yourself up though Sofia ,it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person ,just insecure.Insecurity can happen to anyone at practically any time,especially if you have been cheated on a lot like myself(though I’m no longer insecure lol).

If you have your next relationship just relax a little and let them be them and engage in their own interests taking it slowly.
Good luck 🙂

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B

My boyfriend recently just broke up with me too due to the same reasons and i am thinking it’s all my fault but it isn’t. if someone loves you as much as they claim they would fight fight fight and fight to stay with you no matter what. yes you need to work on your own insecurities as well as i do but don’t ever blame yourself cause it makes it worst. i have actual pain in my heart during this breakup because of how heart broken and saddened i am by this. especially that he hasn’t texted me once and i’m fighting every urge to text him. it’s excruciating the pain i am in.

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Amy

Hi there. I feel the same way right now. Like it’s all my fault and I’m still living with him. He was really good to me I just couldn’t see it bc of the past. But then I think about the things I nagged at him for and it makes me upset for over reacting. And two that some of those things he did were so hard on me. Now I’m lost bc im in love with a man I can’t be with. I went to work this morning and I’m so anxious I can’t sit still. I can’t eat. I sleep but then I get up for a few hours and want to lay down. I’m shaky. It’s sad. He’s so strong minded. I will probably post what he text me when we broke up. It was so real to me and so different from all other men but then I still sit and classify him with other “dogs” bc he used to be??? Geezzzz

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Fallout

I was having an affair with a married woman. At 60 this was the first time I had experienced a true chemical infatuation, the feeling was out of this world…I ignored the many red flags…and was in heaven for four months. I had to go abroad for a seven week assignment and all communications with her in this time sustained my feelings. On my return I was promptly dumped, to be replaced 10 days later by a man of 25. I am in pieces. I thought I was the one that would be different in her eyes, but now realise I’m just another piece of wreckage left in her wake. No doubt the new guy will suffer the same fate too. She cant even understand the hurt she has caused.

Hands up! I’m complicit in the whole sorry mess, play with fire and you will get burnt. The chemicals…and the pain are however the same regardless.

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Pieces.

I enjoyed the article and finally I’ve put a name to my feelings. I was with him for a little over a year and we parted in October 2018… it’s been an emotional roller coaster – one day you feel high knowing you can do with a better relationship, the next you’re plunging down with feelings of loss. I guess dating someone you consider a great friend must come with a warning – if you lose one you can lose both… I mourn my losses. My mind is messy, sometimes I find myself stalking, my appetite has gone and I’ve visibly lost weight.
I pray for a day this will pass, for now each day is a struggle.

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KT

I’m glad I found this article. It helped. It’s nice to have an explanation for my feelings and to read about people going through the same thing. My boyfriend of 11 years (on and off) ended things for good with me in October and I’m having trouble coping. We had such a dramatic relationship with a lot of fighting so that’s what ultimately caused the end of it all, but I feel like I can’t live without him. I’ve called him crying twice which was two mistakes – not leading to anything except me sobbing on the phone and him telling me it has to be over. I feel so hopeless and I can feel myself wanting to make drastic decisions to ease the pain. He’s been in my life for so long, I don’t know how to live without him. I know times heals all wounds but I hate not knowing when this crushing pain will finally stop. I feel so scared for the months of pain ahead of me.

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Paul

So we were together 6 years. It doesn’t matter it sometimes didn’t work out between us. The day she’s gone…the moment you realize she packed up all her things, left the flat we shared and designed together and now is almost empty. She won’t knock on the door anymore, she will not greet you with a smile, won’t ask you what would you like to eat.

I feel really strong pain chest, can’t take a full breathe. My stomach seems closed, I can’t eat, need to force myself to have a meal. I’m 33 now, and I always used to laugh at people having or talking about such symptoms but not anymore. Maybe it will pass but not very soon. Thank you for this article. It’s really good.

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Syed

I am also going through same. Still feeling heart broken after 3 months of break up, m so much sad and depressed, feeling so bad that I couldn’t express by word, it’s so terrible.. wanna kill myself but I can’t die because of my parents. Every morning when I wake up I feel so depressed and sad feels like dying… Lost job n lost interest in every thing, I have no one to help me😭 m only being patience… Sitting in room whole day feeling every worst feeling. Hating my self so much for falling in love

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Rose

Reading the comments have honestly been a breath of fresh air because I thought I was going through this pain alone, I felt like no one in the entire world can feel these kind of emotions because I felt like I was going crazy! My boyfriend and I broke up 3 weeks ago and it has been so gut wrenching. I dont want to play the blame game because we both hurt each other, but he broke up with me because I couldnt get over the past which caused me to be paranoid, suspicious, and negative, and naggy. But we were together for about 3 years and what I cant get over is how he can just end it with a phone call. Hasnt even texted or message me, I have some stuff left at his apartment and he hasnt even contact me to get them. It is as if he just vanished, which I think is really cold hearted. And now I am left to find closure with this abrupt break up. I feel so insane sometimes because I will have a day or so where I feel like i have conquered this breakup and then just suddenly break out in tears during random moments. Then I spur onto all these guilt and shame thoughts in my mind, I am functioning on the outside but inside I feel like my heart is so heavy. I just want to get over this breakup……

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Julianne K

To be honest sometimes, although gut wrenching and cold , they are doing you a favor my friend. No contact gives you time to take a pause . It forces you to stop questioning , reasoning , and brings all the noise to a stop . Everyday you will get stronger .. you will get used to not hearing from him , and you will learn to listen to your own heart , feel your feelings even as raw as they are . I’ve found when they come back it’s like peeling off a scab and you hurt all over again . Trust me he’lll rebound back .. it’s only a matter of time . Whatever is taking up his time will get old and wear off . He’ll see what he had . I too brought past issues and didn’t trust and it drove him away . In my time alone after I worked through that and I won’t bring that into the next one . Another piece of advice don’t date .. wait . Give it time . You’ll just do same thing all over . Good Luck !

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